COVID Impact: More Students Taking Their MBAs Closer To Home

MBA students at HEC Paris: The school is getting more applicants from students closer to home

The pandemic has changed many things at business schools this year. Twelve months ago, nobody predicted socially distanced classes with students wearing masks behind plexiglass screens, or that Zoom study groups would have become a way of life. But the pandemic is changing things other than the way education is delivered. It is also changing who is applying to business school, and where.

As economies enter recessions, the number of people deciding to leave their jobs and invest in their future by taking an MBA his increasing. Unlike in past downturns, however, potential MBAs have to contend with the possibility of travel restrictions, quarantines and the risk that their family – or they – could contract a dangerous illness. One effect is that, in Europe at least, many more people are applying to MBAs close to their homes.

HEC business school in Paris, France, has seen European applications soar by 51%, with big bumps from its two closest markets; the numbers from the U.K. are up 41% and 36% from France. At ESMT in Berlin, Germany, 7.8% of applications this year are German, up from a mere 1.5% last year. Alliance Manchester in the north of England has seen a 31% increase in applications from its home U.K. market to its MBA.


Said Business School at the University of Oxford, says that it has seen an 80% uptick in U.K. applicants, while at Imperial College Business School in London the increase is 33%. Traditionally, students from home markets tend to apply for MBAs in later rounds of the application process, so assuming this pattern repeats itself this year, it is to be expected that these figures will increase even further.

In some schools, this might not have much of an effect on the actual final make-up of the classes that end up taking their MBAs. Some of the top-ranked European schools are incredibly global, with more than 90% of international students on the full-time MBA. For them, the percentages are unlikely to change. (London Business School and Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, say that they have not seen a significant change in applications from those based close to the schools.) But we can predict with some certainty that classes starting this fall at some European schools will have a different – and in many cases, more local — flavour.

In fact, at some the effects are already being seen. At Berlin’s ESMT, 12% of the 2021 class is German, double the figure for 2020. At IESE Business School, based in Barcelona, Spain, 37% of the MBA class that started in fall of 2020 were European, up from 31% a year earlier. There was also a sizable decrease from the Americas from 41% to 33%. The number of Spanish students at IESE increased from 15% to 18%. At Vlerick Business School in Belgium, the number of natives in the class usually hovers around the 20% mark, last year dipping to 15 percent. This year, 35 percent of the class are Belgians.


HEC Paris Associate Dean Andrea Masini

HEC Paris Associate Dean Andrea Masini

Why is this happening? And what does it mean? The answers are a little complex.

Andrea Masini, associate dean in charge of the MBA at HEC in Paris, says that in his school’s case the trend ought to be seen in the context of a general increase in applications, caused by factors like better performance in MBA ranking lists, a curriculum with greater appeal to potential students and a successful switch to online teaching in the face of the pandemic. As well as seeing more applications from Europe, HEC says that it has also more applications from the U.S. than in previous years. However, COVID probably is playing a part, too. Masini theorises that students “prefer to stay in a system that guarantees better health insurance, and they know that France has one of the best systems in the world.” Like all major schools, HEC guarantees its students well-priced health insurance, which must put minds at ease.

Secondly, Masini says that “the European Union space has advantages in terms of freedom of travelling. So for instance, France decided to increase the measures of the borders for all travellers from outside the EU, who have to provide a negative PCR test to enter the country, but that doesn’t apply to the EU.” This means that EU citizens can get home easily if they need to. Also, it is worth pointing out that the freedom to travel within the EU has another advantage. It is a very diverse region, and MBA students in Paris can visit the banks of Amsterdam, the start-ups of Berlin or the cutting-edge manufacturers of northern Italy with ease. Site visits and treks are less likely to be cancelled.

Paula Amorim, MBA admissions director at IESE, says that some students have been nervous about travelling too far from home. Some Asian students, for example, opted to defer their MBAs. People in areas where the covid situation is still grave, such as the US, South America and Africa, have expressed some reluctance to move away from their support networks. American students especially also have good MBA options close to home, which could sway their decision, she thinks. The same, of course, goes for Europeans. “We have some students already worrying about this, so it is possible that we will have more applications from closer to home in rounds three and four, because people will think that it is less risky,” she says.


Virginie Fougeau, director of admissions and financial aid at INSEAD

As mentioned above, in its most recent class IESE raised the percentage of Europeans from around 30% to around 40%, a number that they say they would be happy to see again. Does this mean less diversity on the program? Not at all. The move to online recruitment events has led to an increase in interest from more geographically distant candidates who might previously have been out off by not being able to visit campus. The next intake, therefore, could be both more Spanish and more diverse in terms of country of origin.

However, it is probably too early to start theorising with any precision about the makeup of future MBA classes. INSEAD‘s Global Director of Admissions Virginie Fougea, says that applicants from some countries are probably waiting to see how the pandemic plays out. “We do see a decrease in applications from some countries, but is it because people want to stay closer to home? Or is it because the pandemic is still so active that people aren’t planning for an MBA?” People want a clearer picture of, for example, travel restrictions and progress with vaccination before they apply.

Another question that plays into this picture is whether more MBA applicants from Europe and Asia will be put off the U.S. by the images of political chaos coming out of Washington and turn to European schools instead. Admissions experts think that the same “wait and see” philosophy will apply. IESE’s Paula Amorim says that those from countries with histories of volatile politics might take the U.S.’s problems in their stride anyway. U.S. students might choose to escape to Europe, but they have several months to decide.


Do these trends offer opportunities? For non-European students, it won’t necessarily be easier to get into a top European school, even if numbers from their region fall because the schools say they are maintaining their admission standards. IESE’s Paula Amorim, however, notes that it is possible that scholarships awarded to people from certain regions might be easier to come by.

What do current students make of the situation? Beatriz Alustiza, a Spanish MBA at IESE, has been working abroad for several years and sees business school in her native country as a good route to returning there. She thinks that some Asian students have been “a little anxious about the way European countries have handled the crisis, which gives people more personal freedom” than their home countries tend to have. If more Europeans see the crisis as a good time to come home, and others stay away, then the complexion of European MBAs could indeed continue to change.

Noah Law, a British MBA studying at Oxford Saïd, says: “I think the pandemic has, in some ways, globalized business and networks. I think U.K. business schools, Oxford in particular, offer more globalized networks of people than anywhere else and this is something that I saw as very valuable.”

The same, of course, could be said for many European business schools. As Law says: “An MBA doesn’t seem to be a bad way to ride out the storm.”

When the world opens up again, those armed with MBAs and new networks will be able to go forth and conquer. And in the meantime? Home has its attractions.

Meet the Admissions Directors and Alumni from INSEAD, LBS, HEC Paris, Imperial, IESE, IMD, RSM and other top European business schools at the CentreCourt MBA Festival on 23 & 24 February, 2021.

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